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Richard Monastersky

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From Photographer

Jonathan Blair

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Cheri Wiggs (top) and Jonathan Blair

image: pencil
With Pterosaurs

Field Notes From Author
Richard Monastersky
This story took me places and introduced me to people I would never have met otherwise. All of these experiences helped bring alive the world of the pterosaurs. Traveling with paleontologist Alex Kellner in the rural northeast of Brazil, I jumped into an 8-foot-deep (2.5-meter-deep) pit and dug up 100-million-year-old fossils of fish—some of the same species that would have been gulped up by pterosaurs during the Cretaceous period.
Alex and his colleague Diogenes Campos took me to the top of the Araripe Plateau, and we watched a black buzzard circle below us as the two scientists described in vivid detail what the lives of pterosaurs would have been like. The setting seemed right out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, the story of a South American plateau where dinosaurs and pterosaurs had managed to survive until today.
At a museum in Munich I ventured into the storerooms to see their prized fossils, including a specimen of Archaepoteryx, the earliest bird known and a true celebrity in the world of paleontology. For a fossil buff, it was the equivalent of getting backstage passes to the hottest show in town.
The downside of the assignment was distilling weeks of travel and months of research into a few thousand words. Because of space constraints, I regretfully had to cut out mention of several scientists who helped me greatly through their time and insights.
When I met him, Rocco Zambelli was a 79-year-old retired curator in Bergamo, Italy, who had 20 years earlier helped discover one of the oldest pterosaurs known. He took me to the site of that discovery. I’ll never forget struggling to follow his bright red socks as he bounded up a steep slope in the foothills of the Alps.
Gunter Viohl of the Jura Museum in Bavaria took me through the museum’s collection of pterosaur fossils and led me on a tour of the Solnhofen quarries, where some of the most important fossils in the history of paleontology have been found.
In Karlsruhe, Germany, Dino Frey got down on his hands and knees to demonstrate how pterosaurs may have walked.
I would have loved to keep those details in the story, but the text had to be trimmed substantially. Accomplishing that task was definitely worse than the parasites I’ve picked up in trips around the world.
Jonathan Blair enlisted me in a scheme he cooked up before we arrived in Brazil. I didn’t think he really intended to carry it out. We planned to rent a giant slide projector and a generator, and then transport them to a gypsum quarry in a remote corner of the country near where pterosaur fossils had been discovered.
Jonathan wanted to project an image of a Brazilian pterosaur onto the wall of white rock and get Alex and Diogenes within kissing distance of the giant beast.
The equipment was pretty unwieldy. It took two of us to lug each item over table-size blocks of gypsum. Jonathan had only a few minutes to get the photograph, just after sunset when it was dark enough to see the projected image but still light enough to see the blue of the sky. Then, after the sky grew dark, we struggled to carry the equipment over the treacherous terrain and back to the car.
We returned to the quarry three nights in a row; I ended up feeling a bit like a professional mover rather than a writer.

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